Designed by Stephenson-Gibney & Associates of the Central Bank in Temple Bar fame and completed in 1973, Merrion Hall on Strand Road is not necessarily a building that easily captures the imagination. Happened upon on trips to the sea, the modernist concrete structure can seem an anomaly on a road of otherwise higgledy-piggledy residential grandeur. “I often have this thing” says Dublin-based architect Tara Kennedy “where I notice a building and I can’t decide whether I like it or not. It’s just that I notice it and then think ‘there’s probably something about that building but I don’t yet know what it is’.”
It wasn’t until Kennedy’s young daughter began attending a Montessori school housed in a building behind Merrion Hall that she really began to understand it. Built below road level with a spacious approach on two sides, Merrion Hall seems a very muted presence for a building so at odds with its surroundings. “It’s super modern and that’s something that really interests me in that there are modern buildings with a kind of subtle presence in Dublin; you kind of think there isn’t a modernist history in Dublin but actually there is, they were just rejected in some sort of way by mainstream architectural culture in Ireland.”
‘When I started going there every day, I began to like it even more. It feels like a very civic space when actually it was just built as a workspace, and a private space,” she continues. “It’s obviously super-modern and so you wouldn’t expect it to feel that generous but actually it feels really nice when you walk around it and around that kind of strange lake in the middle. Especially when you think of more contemporary buildings that house offices and how they can tend to do the opposite in terms of city-making; they are spaces that can be quite inhumane.”
Kennedy’s recent research and interest in children’s interactions with civic spaces brings with it an unexpected experience of Merrion Hall’s design, “being below road level makes the building and surrounding landscape feel very safe and protected” she says. “Also even though the building wasn’t designed with a civic purpose in mind, the building works for and interests kids. It’s very simple and very human-scaled, it’s very generous in that sense towards people.”
Originally built to house two tenants, the Irish Shipping Company and An Bord Tráchtála it’s not easy to figure out what’s based there anymore though the children seem delighted to weave through and around its concrete columns, regardless. The tinted glass that maintains an internal privacy for the office workers forbids any experience of the inside of the building from the outside but one can only imagine that “if there weren’t those tinted windows and the were loads of plants filling the space that it would look really amazing and the view out to the sea must be so lovely.” All of this seemed so unexpected before a child’s introduction to the space. “I would never really have thought about it that much, despite it’s total incongruity with everything around it. But then suddenly my daughter would shout at it when we passed it in the car or on the DART then suddenly it has this presence in our lives.”
Tara Kennedy is an architect with a long term interest in the critical potential of design. In 2008 Tara co-founded Culturstruction, a collaborative practice with Jo Anne Butler working in the overlaps of design, architecture, art and spatial practices. Tara works in practice at John McLaughlin Architects, including producing Making Ireland Modern in 2016, and teaches at Cork Centre for Architectural Education as well as pursuing independent projects in the area of engaged architecture.
Tara is interested in design as constant collaboration, and in how architecture can encourage new ways of probing existing situations. In 2016 Tara co-curated Beyond Participation with the Irish Architecture Foundation. Her current work includes exploring experience of architecture in shared, cultural and co-working spaces for parents with our young children, questioning how the design of these places might better support radical and active citizenship.
Words: Jeanette Farrell